Sean Michael Dargan, the savvy songwriter and rocker who always seems to have his finger on what’s happening in our culture and our politics, was confused by President Obama’s State of the Union address.
“Why didn’t he mention Howard Zinn?” Dargan asked.
That’s no idle question. It goes to the heart of the frustration so many progressives have with Obama and offers a challenge that this president must meet if he is ever to achieve the transformational impact that the definitional leaders of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, had on the United States and its politics.
Obama delivered his first State of the Union address on the day that Zinn, the great historian of popular movements, died at the age of 87.
A shipyard worker and Air Force bombardier during World War II who went to college on the GI Bill, Zinn became one of America’s greatest public intellectuals. He mentored generations of academics, authors and activists, such as Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman, as a college professor, and penned the most influential American history text of our time: “A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present” (Harper Collins).
Upon its publication, another great historian, Eric Foner, wrote in The New York Times of Zinn’s epic book: “Historians may well view it as a step toward a coherent new version of American history.”
Foner was prescient. “A People’s History” inspired academics and students to explore the whole history of the American experience — not just that of great men and great moments but that of previously little-known revolutionaries, forgotten abolitionists, labor organizers, suffragettes and civil rights campaigners who advanced the nation’s highest ideals. The book has sold more than 1 million copies and inspired songs, plays and “The People Speak,” a documentary movie featuring Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei and others reading from and celebrating Zinn’s work.
As his friend, fellow activist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky said of Zinn: “His historical work changed the way millions of people saw the past.”
One of those people was Barack Obama, whose greatest speeches read like summaries of “A People’s History.” Recall that, after narrowly losing the New Hampshire primary in 2008, candidate Obama rallied his supporters with a speech that seemed to channel Zinn:
“(When) we’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
“It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.
“It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.
“It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.
“It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.
“Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.”
It would be comic to suggest that Obama, a lover of history, has not read or at least encountered Zinn’s writings about the real American story. It would be even more comic to suggest that the president and his aides failed to be influenced by the author’s perspectives.
So why didn’t Obama take a moment to mention Zinn in his State of the Union address? Why didn’t he simply say that we mourn the passing of the man who taught us that the American experiment has been defined not merely by presidents but by the abolitionists, trade unionists and civil rights activists he celebrated during his 2008 campaign?
Yes, Zinn was a radical. Yes, though Zinn endorsed and voted for Obama, the historian was a frequent critic of the president’s compromises.
But nothing the president could have said in his speech would have inspired and energized his base more than a mention of Zinn.
If Obama ever hopes to nurture a new politics that gives real meaning and heft to the term “progressive,” and leaves an ideological legacy that might extend beyond his tenure, then he missed an incredible teaching moment.
And missed teaching moments matter, not just for the future but for the present.
Reagan knew that. As president, he never missed an opportunity to celebrate conservative authors, thinkers and publications. He was constantly recommending books and articles, and appeared at events organized by conservative publications such as the National Review and Human Events.
Reagan was not afraid to talk about American conservatism. Quite the opposite. He wanted to introduce Americans to conservatism, to invite others to read the books, subscribe to the publications and listen to the intellectuals and activists who had influenced him — even when they were sometimes critical of his presidency.
One need not be a fan of Reagan’s policies to recognize the success of his politics. He used his teaching moments to build a movement that emboldened his presidency and extended beyond it.
If a conservative author and intellectual of Zinn’s stature had died on the day when Reagan was delivering a State of the Union address, Reagan would have referenced the passing. Obama should have taken a cue from the great communicator and celebrated Howard Zinn.
John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org